At the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis last week, more than 3,000 people from across the United States cheered as Bill Moyers condemned the excesses and failures of big media, warning about “The Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power, is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth.”
The crowd of media critics, media makers and media reformers rose to their feet to shout their enthusiastic endorsement of Moyers’ call for the creation of new and alternative media outlets that speak truth to power. “We’ve got to get alternative content out there to people, or this country is going to die of too many lies,” said Moyers, as he hailed Amy Goodman and Democracy Now and announced that he will be returning to PBS in April with a new public affairs program.
Here is Moyers’ keynote address from January 12, 2007, the opening day of the conference:
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN ONCE SAID, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.”
“Liberty,” he said, “is a well-armed lamb, contesting the vote.”
My fellow lambs — it’s good to be in Memphis and find you well-armed with passion for democracy, readiness for action, and courage for the next round in the fight for a free and independent press in America. I salute the conviction that brought you here. I cherish the spirit that fills this hall, and the camaraderie that we share here.
All too often, the greatest obstacle to reform is the reform movement itself. Factions rise, fences are erected, jealousies mount, and the cause all of us believe in is lost in the shattered fragments of what once was a clear and compelling vision.
Reformers, in fact, often remind me of Baptists. I speak as a Baptist. I know whereof I speak. One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, “Stop, stop, don’t do it.”
The man on the bridge looks down and asks, “Why not?”
“Well, there’s much to live for.”
“Well, your faith. Your religion.”
“Are you religious?”
“Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?”
“Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?”
“Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reform Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?”
Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, “Die, you heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.
DOESN’T THAT SOUND LIKE A REFORM MOVEMENT? But by avoiding contentious factionalism, you have created a strong movement. And I will confess to you that I was skeptical when Bob McChesney and John Nichols first raised with me the issue of media consolidation a few years ago. I was sympathetic but skeptical. The challenge of actually doing something about this issue beyond simply bemoaning its impact on democracy was daunting. How could we hope to come up with an effective response to any measurable force? It seemed inexorable, because all over the previous decades, a series of mega-media mergers have swept the country, each deal bigger than the last. The lobby representing the broadcast, cable, and newspapers industries was extremely powerful, with an iron grip on lawmakers and regulators alike.
Both parties bowed to their will when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest, and most powerful media conglomerations in the world. Goliaths, whose handful of owners controlled, commodified, and monetized everyone and everything in sight. Call it “the plantation mentality.”
That’s what struck me as I flew into Memphis for this gathering. Even in 1968, the civil rights movement was still battling the plantation mentality, based on race, gender and power, which permeated Southern culture long before, and even after, the groundbreaking legislation of the 1960s.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to join the strike of garbage workers in 1968, the cry from every striker’s heart — “I am a man” — voiced the long-suppressed outrage of people whose rights were still being trampled by an ownership class that had arranged the world for its own benefit. The plantation mentality is a phenomenon deeply insinuated in the American experience early on, and it has permeated and corrupted our course as a nation.
The journalist of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, envisioned the new republic as a community of occupations, prospering by the aid with which each receives from the other and from the whole. But that vision was repeatedly betrayed, so that less than a century after Thomas Paine’s death, Theodore Roosevelt, bolting a Republican Party whose bosses had stolen the nomination from him, declared: “It is not to be wondered at, that our opponents have been very bitter, for the line-up in this crisis is one that cuts deep to the foundations of democracy.”
“Our democracy,” he said, “is now put to a vital test, for the conflict is between human rights on the one side, and on the other, special privilege asserted as property rights. The parting of the ways has come.”
Today, a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt’s death, those words ring just as true. America is socially divided and politically benighted. Inequality and poverty grow steadily along with risk and debt. Too many working families cannot make ends meet with two people working, let alone if one stays home to care for children or aging parents. Young people without privilege and wealth struggle to get a footing. Seniors enjoy less security for a lifetime’s work. We are racially segregated today in every meaningful sense, except for the letter of the law. And the survivors of segregation and immigration toil for pennies on the dollar, compared to those they serve.
None of this is accidental. Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow, not known for extreme political statements, characterizes what is happening as “nothing less than elite plunder” — the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy, and the power in favor of the powerful. In fact, nearly all the wealth America created over the past 25 years has been captured by the top 20 percent of households, and most of the gains went to the wealthiest. The top 1 percent of households captured more than 50 percent of all the gains in financial wealth, and these households now hold more than twice the share their predecessors held on the eve of the American Revolution.
The anti-Federalist warning that government naturally works to fortify the conspiracies of the rich proved prophetic. It’s the truth today, and America confronts a choice between two fundamentally different economic visions. As Norman Garfinkel writes in his marvelous new book, The American Dream vs. the Gospel of Wealth, the historic vision of the American dream is that continuing economic growth and political stability can be achieved by supporting income growth and economic security of middle-class families, without restricting the ability of successful business men to gain wealth.
The counter-belief is that providing maximum financial rewards to the most successful is the way to maintain high economic growth. The choice cannot be avoided. What kind of economy do we seek, and what kind of nation do we wish to be? Do we want to be a country in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or do we want a country committed to an economy that provides for the common good, offers upward mobility, supports a middle-class standard of living, and provides generous opportunities for all?
“When the richest nation in the world has to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to pay its bill,” Garfinkel says in his book, “when its middle class citizens sit on a mountain of debt to maintain their living standards, when the nation’s economy has difficulty producing secure jobs, or enough jobs of any kind, something is amiss.”
You bet something is amiss, and it goes to the core of why we are here in Memphis. For this conference is about a force, the media, that cuts deep to the foundation of democracy. When Teddy Roosevelt dissected what he called “the real masters of the reactionary forces” in his time, he concluded that, indirectly or directly, “they control the majority of the great newspapers that are against us.” Those newspapers, the dominant media of the day, choked “the channels of the information ordinary people needed to understand what was being done to them.”
And today, two basic pillars of American society, shared economic prosperity and a public sector capable of serving the common good, are crumbling. The third pillar of American democracy, an independent press, is under sustained attack, and the channels of information are choked. A few huge corporations now dominate the media landscape in America. Almost all the networks carried by most cable systems are owned by one of the major media common conglomerates. Two-thirds of today’s newspapers are monopolies.
As ownership gets more and more concentrated, fewer and fewer independent sources of information have survived in the marketplace; and those few significant alternatives that do survive, such as PBS and NPR, are undergoing financial and political pressure to reduce critical news content and to shift their focus in a mainstream direction, which means being more attentive to establishment views than to the bleak realities of powerlessness that shape the lives of ordinary people.
What does today’s media system mean for the notion of an informed public cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears, outside of her own personal communications, is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the share prices. More insidiously, this small group of elites determines what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth coverage of anything, let alone the problems real people face day-to-day, is as scarce as sex, violence and voyeurism are pervasive.
Successful business model or not, by democratic standards this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form, which Barry Diller happily describes as “oligopoly,” media growth has one clear consequence. There is more information and easier access to it, but it’s more narrow and homogenous in content and perspective. What we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top. The pioneering communications scholar Murray Edelman wrote that opinions about public policy do not spring immaculately or automatically into people’s minds. They are always placed there by the interpretations of those who most consistently get their claims and manufactured cues publicized widely.
For years, the media marketplace for opinions about public policy has been dominated by a highly disciplined, thoroughly networked, ideological “noise machine,” to use David Brock’s term. Permeated with slogans concocted by big corporations, their lobbyists, and their think tank subsidiaries, public discourse has effectively changed the meaning of American values. Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people’s lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers, who speak of the “death tax,” “the ownership society,” “the culture of life,” “the liberal assault on God and family,” “compassionate conservatism,” “weak on terrorism,” “the end of history,” “the clash of civilizations,” “no child left behind.” They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a “surge,” as if it were a current of electricity through a wire, instead of blood spurting from the ruptured vein of a soldier.
The Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power, is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth. So it is that limited government has little to do with the Constitution or local economy anymore. Now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. Family values now mean imposing a sectarian definition of the family on everyone else. Religious freedom now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And patriotism has come to mean blind support for failed leaders.
It’s what happens when an interlocking media system filters through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints people consume in their daily lives. And by no stretch of the imagination can we say today that the dominant institutions of our media are guardians of democracy.
Despite the profusion of new information platforms on cable, on the Internet, on radio, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and MySpace, among others, the resources for solid, original journalistic work, both investigative and interpretative, are contracting, rather than expanding.
I’M OLD-FASHIONED. I’m a fogey at this, I guess, a hangover from my days as a cub reporter and a newspaper publisher. But I agree with Michael Schudson, one of the leading scholars of communication in America, who writes in the current Columbia Journalism Review that while all media matter, some matter more than others. And for the sake of democracy, print still counts most — especially print that devotes resources to gathering news.
Network TV matters, he said. Cable TV matters, he said. But when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media. But newspapers are purposely dumbing-down, “driven down,” says Schudson, by Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil and seems determined to eviscerate those papers.
Worrying about the loss of real news is not a romantic cliché of journalism. It’s been verified by history. From the days of royal absolutism to the present, the control of information and knowledge had been the first line of defense for failed regimes facing democratic unrest. The suppression of parliamentary dissent during Charles I’s 11 years of tyranny in England rested largely on government censorship, operating through strict licensing laws for the publication of books.
The Federalist’s infamous Sedition Act of 1798 in this country, likewise, sought to quell republican insurgency by making it a crime to publish false, scandalous and malicious writing about the government or its officials. In those days, our governing bodies tried to squelch journalistic information with the blunt instruments of the law: padlocks for the presses and jail cells for outspoken editors and writers. Over time, with spectacular wartime exceptions, the courts and the Constitution have struck those weapons out of their hand.
But now they have found new methods in the name of national security and even broader claims of executive privilege. The number of documents stamped “Top Secret,” “Secret,” or “Confidential” has accelerated dramatically since 2001, including many formerly accessible documents that are now reclassified as “Secret.” Vice President Cheney’s office refuses to disclose, in fact, what it is classifying. Even their secrecy is being kept a secret.
Beyond what is officially labeled “Secret” or “privileged” information, there hovers on the plantation a culture of selective official news implementation, working through favored media insiders to advance political agendas by leak and innuendo and spin, by outright propaganda mechanisms, such as the misnamed public information offices that churn out blizzards of factually selective releases on a daily basis, and even by directly paying pundits and journalists to write on subjects of mutual interest.
They needn’t have wasted the money. As we saw in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the plantation mentality that governs Washington turned the press corps into sitting ducks for the war party, for government, and neoconservative propaganda and manipulation. There were notable exceptions — Knight Ridder’s bureau, for example — but on the whole, all high-ranking officials had to do was say it, and the press repeated it until it became gospel. The height of myopia came with the admission (or was it bragging?) by one of the Beltway’s most prominent anchors that his responsibility is to provide officials a forum to be heard, what they say more newsworthy than what they do.
The watchdog group FAIR found that during the three weeks leading up to the invasion, only 3 percent of U.S. sources on the evening news of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and PBS expressed skeptical opinions of the impending war, even though a quarter of the American people were against it. Not surprisingly, two years after 9/11, almost 70 percent of the public still thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of that day.
One Indiana schoolteacher told the Washington Post: “From what we’ve heard from the media, it seems what they feel is that Saddam and the whole Al-Qaeda thing are connected.” Much to the advantage of the Bush administration, a large majority of the public shared this erroneous view during the build-up to the war, a propaganda feat that Saddam himself would have envied. It is absolutely stunning, frightening how the major media organizations were willing, even solicitous, hand puppets of a state propaganda campaign, cheered on by the partisan, ideological press to go to war.
But there are many other ways the plantation mentality keeps the American people from confronting reality. Take the staggering growth of money in politics. Compared to the magnitude of the problem, what the average person knows about how money determines policy is negligible. In fact, in the abstract, the polls tell us, most people generally assume that money controls our political system. But people will rarely act on something they understand only in the abstract. It took a constant stream of images — water hoses, and dogs and churches ablaze — for the public at large finally to understand what was happening to black people in the South. It took repeated scenes of destruction in Vietnam before the majority of Americans saw how we were destroying the country in order to save it. And it took repeated crime-scene images to maintain public support for many policing and sentencing policies.
Likewise, people have to see how money and politics actually work and concretely grasp the consequences for their pocketbooks and their lives before they will act. But while media organizations supply a lot of news and commentary, they tell us almost nothing about who really wags the system and how. When I watch one of those faux debates on a Washington public affairs show, with one politician saying, “This is a bad bill,” and the other politician saying, “This is a good bill,” I yearn to see the smiling, nodding, Beltway anchor suddenly interrupt and insist, “Good bill or bad bill, this is a bought bill. Now, let’s cut to the chase. Whose financial interests are you advancing with this bill?”
Then there’s the social cost of free trade. For over a decade, free trade has hovered over the political system like a biblical commandment striking down anything — trade unions, the environment, indigenous rights, even the constitutional standing of our own laws passed by our elected representatives — that gets in the way of unbridled greed. The broader negative consequences of this agenda, increasingly well-documented by scholars, get virtually no attention in the dominant media. Instead of reality, we get optimistic, multicultural scenarios of coordinated global growth. And instead of substantive debate, we get a stark formulated choice between free trade to help the world and gloomy-sounding protectionism that will set everyone back.
The degree to which this has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for “free trade.” We have reached the stage when the Poo-Bahs of punditry have only to declare that “the world is flat,” for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves.
I think what’s happened is not indifference or laziness or incompetence, but the fact that most journalists on the plantation have so internalized conventional wisdom that they simply accept that the system is working as it should. I’m doing a documentary this spring called “Buying the War,” and I can’t tell you again how many reporters have told me that it just never occurred to them that high officials would manipulate intelligence in order to go to war. Hello?
Similarly, the question of whether or not our economic system is truly just is off the table for investigation and discussion, so that alternative ideas, alternative critiques, alternative visions never get a hearing. And these are but a few of the realities that are obscured. What about this growing inequality? What about the re-segregation of our public schools? What about the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation? All of these are examples of what happens when independent sources of knowledge and analysis are so few and far between on the plantation.
So if we need to know what is happening, and Big Media won’t tell us; if we need to know why it matters, and Big Media won’t tell us; if we need to know what to do about it, and Big Media won’t tell us, it’s clear what we have to do. We have to tell the story ourselves.
And this is what the plantation owners feared most of all. Over all those decades here in the South, when they used human beings as chattel, and quoted scripture to justify it, property rights over human rights was God’s way, they secretly lived in fear that one day — instead of saying, “Yes, Massa” — those gaunt, weary, sweat-soaked field hands, bending low over the cotton under the burning sun, would suddenly stand up straight, look around, see their sweltering and stooping kin and say, “This ain’t the product of intelligent design. The boss man in the big house has been lying to me. Something is wrong with this system.”
This is the moment freedom begins, the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it’s time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself.
When the garbage workers struck here in 1968, and the walls of these buildings echoed with the cry, “I am a man,” they were writing this story. Martin Luther King came here to help them tell it, only to be shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The bullet killed him, but it couldn’t kill the story, because once the people start telling their story, you can’t kill it anymore.
SO I’M BACK WHERE I STARTED WITH YOU, AND WHERE THIS MOVEMENT IS HEADED. The greatest challenge to the plantation mentality of the media giants is the innovation and expression made possible by the digital revolution. I may still prefer the newspaper for its investigative journalism and in-depth analysis, but we now have it in our means to tell a different story from Big Media, our story.
The other story of America that says, free speech is not just corporate speech. That news is not just what officials tell us. And we are not just chattel in the fields living the boss man’s story. This is the great gift of the digital revolution, and you must never, never let them take it away from you. The Internet, cell phones and digital cameras that can transmit images over the Internet makes possible a nation of story tellers, every citizen a Tom Paine.
Let the man in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue think that over, and the woman of the House on Capitol Hill. And the media moguls in their chalets at Sun Valley, gathered to review the plantation’s assets and multiply them, nail it to their door. They no longer own the copyright to America’s story. It’s not a top-down story anymore. Other folks are going to write this story from the ground up. And the truth will be out that the media plantation, like the cotton plantation of old, is not divinely sanctioned. It’s not the product of natural forces. The media system we have been living under for a long time now was created behind closed doors where the power-brokers met to divvy up the spoils.
Bob McChesney has eloquently reminded us through the years how each medium — radio, television and cable — was hailed as a technology that would give us greater diversity of voices, serious news, local programs, and lots of public service for the community. In each case, the advertisers took over.
Despite what I teasingly told you the last time we were together in St. Louis, the star that shines so brightly in the firmament the year I was born, 1934, did not, I regret to say, appear over that little house in Hugo, Oklahoma. It appeared over Washington when Congress enacted the 1934 Communications Act. One hundred times in that cornerstone of our communications policy, you will read the phrase “public interests, convenience, and necessity.”
I can tell you reading about those days that educators, union officials, religious leaders and parents were galvanized by the promise of radio as a classroom for the air, serving the life of the country and the life of the mind – until the government cut a deal with the industry to make sure nothing would threaten the already vested interests of powerful radio networks and the advertising industry. And soon, the public largely forgot about radio’s promise, as we accepted the entertainment produced and controlled by Jell-O, Maxwell House and Camel cigarettes.
What happened to radio, happened to television, and then it happened to cable; and, if we are not diligent, it will happen to the Internet. Powerful forces are at work now, determined to create our media future for the benefit of the plantation: investors, advertisers, owners and the parasites that depend on their indulgence, including many in the governing class.
Old media acquire new media and vice versa. Rupert Murdoch, forever savvy about the next key outlet that will attract eyeballs, purchased MySpace, spending nearly $600 million, so he could, in the language of Wall Street, monetize those eyeballs. Goggle became a partner in Time Warner, investing $1 billion in its AOL online service. And now Goggle has bought YouTube, so it would have a better vehicle for delivering interactive ads for Madison Avenue. Viacom, Microsoft, large ad agencies, and others have been buying up key media properties, many of them the leading online sites, with a result that will be a thoroughly commercialized environment, a media plantation for the 21st century, dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have produced the system we have lived under the last 50 years.
So what do we do? Well, you’ve shown us what we have to do. And twice now, you have shown us what we can do. Four years ago, when FCC Commissioner Michael Powell and his ideological sidekicks decided it was ok for a single corporation to own a community’s major newspapers, three of its TV stations, eight radio stations, its cable TV system, and its major broadband Internet provider, you said, enough’s enough!
Free Press, Common Cause, Consumer’s Union, Media Access Project, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and others working closely with commissioners Adelstein and Copps, two of the most public, spirited members of that commission ever to sit there, organized public hearings across the country where people spoke deeply felt opinions about how poorly the media were serving their towns. You flooded Congress with petitions, and you never let up. And when the court said Powell had to back off, the decision cited the importance of involving the public in these media decisions.
Incidentally, Powell not only backed off, he backed out. He left the commission to become senior adviser at a private investment firm specializing in equity investments in media companies around the world. And that firm, by the way, made a bid to take over both Tribune and Clear Channel, two media companies that just a short time ago were under the corporate-friendly purview of — you guessed it — Michael Powell. That whooshing sound you hear is Washington’s perpetually revolving door through which they come to serve the public and through which they leave to join the plantation.
You made a difference. You showed that the public cares about media and democracy. You turned a little publicized vote — little publicized because Big Media didn’t want the people to know — a little publicized and seemingly arcane regulation into a big political fight and a public debate.
Now it’s true, as commissioner Copps has reminded us, that since that battle three years ago, there have been more than 3, 300 TV and radio TV stations that have had their assignment and transfer grants approved, so that even under the old rules, consolidation grows, localism suffers, and diversity dwindles. It’s also true that even as we speak, Michael Powell’s successor, Kevin Martin, put there by George W. Bush, is ready to take up where Powell left off and give the green light to more conglomeration. Get ready to fight.
But then you did it again more recently. You lit a fire under the people to put Washington on notice that it had to guarantee the Internet’s First Amendment protection in the $85 billion merger of AT&T and BellSouth. Because of you, the so-called Net Neutrality, I much prefer to call it the “equal-access provision of the Internet” — neutrality makes me think of Switzerland — the equal-access provision became a public issue that once again reminded the powers-that-be that people want the media to foster democracy, not to quench it.
This is crucial. This is crucial, because in a few years, virtually all media will be delivered by high-speed broadband. And without equality of access, the Net can become just like cable television where the provider decides what you see and what you pay. After all, the Bush Department of Justice had blessed the deal last October without a single condition or statement of concern. But they hadn’t reckoned with Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, and they hadn’t reckoned with this movement. Free Press and SavetheInternet.com orchestrated 800 organizations, a million and a half petitions, countless local events, legions of homemade videos, smart collaboration with allies and industry, and a top shelf communications campaign. Who would have imagined that sitting together in the same democratic broadband pew would be the Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, Common Cause, and Moveon.org? Who would have imagined that these would link arms with some of the powerful new media companies to fight for the Internet’s First Amendment?
We owe a tip of the hat, of course, to Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell. Despite what must have been a great deal of pressure from his side, he did the honorable thing and recused himself from the proceedings because of a conflict of interest. He might well have heard the roar of the public that you helped to create. So AT&T had to cry “uncle” to Copps and Adelstein, with a “voluntary commitment to honor equal access for at least two years.” The agreement marks the first time that the federal government has imposed true neutrality — oops, equality – on an Internet access provider since the debate erupted almost two years ago.
I believe you changed the terms of the debate. It is no longer about whether equality of access will govern the future of the Internet. It’s about when and how. It also signals a change from defense to offense for the backers of an open net. Arguably the biggest, most effective online organizing campaign ever conducted on a media issue can now turn to passing good laws, rather than always having to fight to block bad ones. Just this week, Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, and Sen. Olympia Snow, a Republican, introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007 to require fair and equitable access to all content. And over in the House, that champion of the public interest, Rep. Ed Markey, is once again standing there waiting to press the battle.
A caveat here. Those other folks don’t give up so easy. Remember, this agreement is only for two years, and they will be back with all the lobbyists money can hire. As the Washington Post follows George Bush into the black hole of Baghdad, the press in Washington won’t be covering many stories like this because of priorities.
A further caveat. Consider what AT&T got in the bargain. For giving up on Net Neutrality, it got the green light from government to dominate over 67 million phone lines in 22 states, almost 12 million broadband users, and total control over Cingular Wireless, the country’s largest mobile phone company with 58 million cell phone users. It’s as if China swallowed India.
I bring this up for a reason. Big Media is ravenous. It never gets enough, always wants more. And it will stop at nothing to get it. These conglomerates are an empire, and they are imperial.
Last week on his Web site, MediaChannel.org, Danny Schechter recalled how some years ago he marched with a band of media activists to the headquarters of all the big media companies concentrated in the Times Square area. Their formidable buildings strutted with logos and limos, and guarded by rent-a-cops, projected their power and prestige. Danny and his cohorts chanted and held up signs calling for honest news and an end to exploited programming. They called for diversity and access for more perspectives. “It felt good,” Danny said, “but it seemed like a fool’s errand. We were ignored, patronized and marginalized. We couldn’t shake their edifices or influence their holy business models. We seemed to many like that lonely and forlorn nut in a New Yorker cartoon carrying an ‘End of the World is Near’ placard.”
Well, yes, my friends, that is exactly how they want you to feel. As if media and democracy is a fool’s errand. To his credit, Danny didn’t give up. He’s never given up. Neither have the early pioneers of this movement: Andy Schwartzman, Don Hazen, Jeff Chester. I confess that I came very close not to making this speech today, in favor of just getting up here and reading from this book, Digital Destiny, by my friend and co-conspirator, Jeff Chester. Take my word for it. Make this your bible, until McChesney’s new book comes out. As Don Hazen writes in his review in AlterNet this week, it’s a terrific book, “a respectful loving, fresh, intimate comprehensive history of the struggles for a ‘democratic’ media — the lost fights, the opportunities missed, and the small victories that have kept the corporate media system from having complete carte blanche over the communication channels.”
It’s also a terrifying book, because Jeff describes how we are being shadowed online by a slew of software digital gumshoes working for Madison Avenue. Our movements in cyberspace are closely tracked and analyzed, and interactive advertising infiltrates our consciousness to promote the brand-washing of America. Jeff asks the hard questions: Do we really want television sets that monitor what we watch? Or an Internet that knows what sites we visit and reports back to advertising companies? Do we really want a media system designed mainly for Madison Avenue?
But this is a hopeful book. “After scaring the bejeezus out of us,” as one reviewer wrote, Jeff offers a policy agenda for the broadband era. Here is a man who practices what the Italian philosopher Gramsci called the “pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.” He sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses and tries to change it, despite what he knows.
So you’ll find here the core of the movement’s mission. You’ll agree with much and disagree with some. But that’s what a reform movement is about. Media reform — yes. But the Project in Excellence concluded in its “State of the Media Report” for 2006, “At many old media companies, though not in all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost.” The commercial networks are lost, too, lost to silliness, farce, cowardice and ideology. Not much hope there. You can’t raise the dead.
Policy reform, yes. But, says Jeff, we will likely see more consolidation of ownership with newspapers, TV stations, and major online properties in fewer hands. So, he says, we have to find other ways to ensure the public has access to diverse, independent, and credible sources of information.
That means going to the market to find support for stronger independent media. Michael Moore and others have proven that progressivism doesn’t have to equal penury. It means helping protect news-gathering from predatory forces. It means fighting for more participatory media, hospitable to a full range of expression. It means building on Lawrence Lessig’s notion of the “creative commons” and Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archives, with his philosophy of universal access to all knowledge.
It means bringing broadband service to those many millions of Americans too poor to participate so far in the digital revolution. It means ownership and participation for people of color and women. And let me tell you, it means reclaiming public broadcasting and restoring it to its original feisty, robust, fearless mission as an alternative to the dominant media, offering journalism you can afford and can trust, public affairs of which you are a part, and a wide range of civic and cultural discourse that leaves no one out.
You can have an impact here. For one thing, we need to remind people that the federal commitment to public broadcasting in this country is about $1.50 per capita, compared to $28 to $85 per capita in other democracies.
BUT THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE I WANT YOU TO THINK ABOUT. Something else you can do. And I’m going to let you in here on one of my fantasies. Keep it to yourself, if you will, because fantasies are private matters, and mine involves Amy Goodman. But I’ll just ask C-SPAN to bleep this out. Oh, shucks, what’s the use. Here it is. In moments of revelry, I imagine all of you returning home to organize a campaign to persuade your local public television station to start airing Democracy Now!
I can’t think of a single act more likely to remind people of what public broadcasting should be, or that this media reform conference really means business. We’ve got to get alternative content out there to people, or this country is going to die of too many lies. And the opening rundown of news on Amy’s daily show is like nothing else on any television, corporate or public. It’s as if you opened the window in the morning and a fresh breeze rolls over you from the ocean. Amy doesn’t practice trickle-down journalism. She goes where the silence is, and she breaks the sound barrier. She doesn’t buy the Washington protocol that says the truth lies somewhere in the spectrum of opinion between the Democrats and the Republicans.
On Democracy Now! the truth lies where the facts are hidden, and Amy digs for them. And above all, she believes the media should be a sanctuary for dissent, the Underground Railroad tunneling beneath the plantation. So go home and think about it. After all, you are the public in public broadcasting and not just during pledge breaks. You live there, and you can get the boss man at the big house to pay attention.
Meanwhile, be vigilant about the congressional rewrite of the Telecommunications Act that is beginning as we speak. Track it day by day and post what you learn far and wide, because the decisions made in this session of Congress will affect the future of all media, corporate and noncommercial. If we lose the future now, we’ll never get it back.
So you have your work cut out for you. I’m glad you’re all younger than me and up to it. I’m glad so many funders are here, because while an army may move on its stomach, this movement requires hard, cold cash to compete with big media in getting the attention of Congress and the people.
I’ll try to do my part. Last time we were together, I said to you that I should put my detractors on notice. They might just compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair. Well, in April, I will be back with a new weekly series called Bill Moyer’s Journal, thanks to some of the funders in this room. We’ll take no money from public broadcasting because it compromises you even when you don’t intend it to — or they don’t intend it to. I hope to complement the fine work of colleagues like David Brancaccio of NOW and David Fanning of Frontline, who also go for the truth behind the news.
But I don’t want to tease you. I’m not coming back because of detractors. I wouldn’t torture them that way. I’ll leave that to Dick Cheney. I’m coming back, because it’s what I do best. Because I believe television can still signify, and I don’t want you to feel so alone. I’ll keep an eye on your work. You are to America what the abolition movement was, and the suffragette movement, and the civil rights movement. You touch the soul of democracy. It’s not assured you will succeed in this fight. The armies of the Lord are up against mighty hosts. But as the spiritual sojourner Thomas Merton wrote to an activist grown weary and discouraged protesting the Vietnam War, “Do not depend on the hope of results. Concentrate on the value and the truth of the work itself.”
And in case you do get lonely, I’ll leave you with this. As my plane was circling Memphis the other day, I looked out across those vast miles of fertile soil that once were plantations, watered by the Mississippi River, and the sweat from the brow of countless men and women who had been forced to live somebody else’s story. I thought about how in time, with a lot of martyrs, they rose up, one here, then two, then many, forging a great movement that awakened America’s conscience and brought us closer to the elusive but beautiful promise of the Declaration of Independence. As we made our last approach, the words of a Marge Piercy poem began to form in my head, and I remembered all over again why I was coming and why you were here:
What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can t walk, can’t remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can’t blame them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fundraising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the nation’s media reform network, www.freepress.net, which organized the NCMR.